joe, norma, max

Danny Mac as Joe Gillis, Ria Jones as Norma Desmond and Adam Pearce as Max.

Pictures: Manuel Harlan

sunset head 

Birmingham Hippodrome


Billy Wilder’s darkest of Hollywood dramas has become the gloomiest of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musicals, and both are magnificent in their gothic ways.

Wilder collected three Oscars for his 1950’s film starring the 50-year-old former silent movie star Gloria Swanson, Lloyd Webber picked up eight Tonys for his 1991 musical, which is quite a pedigree, but then, this is quite a show.

Rather like Sondheim and Sweeney Todd, this is a more operatic, grown up production from Lloyd Webber. The music is moody, sweeping, almost symphonic at times, while the lyrics by Don Black and Christopher Hampton are sometimes dramatic, sometimes poignant, sometimes sad – even happy a couple of times.

The music compliments the dark set and storyline but, if there is a fault, it is not really memorable music, with any show stopping moments coming from performance rather than songs. The songs are good mind you, at times tender or moving, at times bitter, and they advance the narrative but, like Norma, they are of their time and place. They do encourage some stand-out performances though, led by Ria Jones as the fading, silent movie star Norma Desmond, a role she created 26 years ago in the musical's world premiere back in 1991 at the Sydmonton Festival at Lloyd Webber’s Hampshire country estate.

Older, with a quarter century of theatre behind her, Swansea born Jones brings power and vulnerability to the role of the delusional diva in a performance that commands every inch of the vast Hippodrome stage. It would be easy to ham Norma up as a mad old bat, but Jones avoids that, building instead a complex character who is sad, frightened and insecure. She can be manipulative, using emotional blackmail to get her way, she can be domineering and unreasonable, or childlike or insanely generous; she spends her evenings watching her old movies over and over again, reliving past glories. Her life is set in celluloid aspic and she parted company with reality many reels ago.

Jones makes her not just real but real enough to care about her, and she has some wonderful lines such as when told she used to be big in pictures: "I am big, it's the pictures that got small", or her view of talkies: "we didn't need dialogue. We had faces!".


Tia Jones as Norma Desmond

The faded star persona is enhanced by Jones’s powerful vibrato which makes songs such as With One Look into a triumphant anthem. For a fleeting moment Norma is a star again.

When it comes to power, bass-baritone Adam Pearce, as Max, the servant with a secret past, has it in spades. Deep, rich and resonant, he defends his mistress and her fantasy world like a loyal Rottweiler and the emotion when he sings the reprise of New Ways to Dream is palpable.

Joe Gillis is billed as the star of Strictly Come Dancing but he is much more than that with an established career in musical theatre long before being showered in Saturday night sequins. That provenance shows in an accomplished performance as Joe Gillis the struggling writer ensnared by Norma as the script doctor for the abysmal screenplay of Salome she has written for Paramount; a screenplay where there are no prizes for guessing which aging star of a long past era will be starring, as the 16-year-old Salome - if anyone is mad enough to film the script.

But is he snared? Perhaps, at that moment, he needs her as much as she needs him. He is broke, jobless and yesterday’s man, she at least gives him, even in its bizarre, unreal way, a purpose.

Perhaps we should also mention at this point that Mac is also dead, as we discover in the opening scene, and he is telling us of the events leading up to his demise in a series of flashbacks in the style of a 1940’s Hollywood crime drama, Sam Spade and all that, and Black and Hampton, who also wrote the book, have kept the black and white movie, one liner wisecrack style from Wilder’s original, giving the cynical Mac some of the best lines – and perhaps Wilder’s most cutting comments on the changes in Hollywood as it came to terms with the challenges to the studio star system, the rising popularity of TV and communist witch hunts.

Such as when budding writer Betty Schaefer tells Joe: “I'd always heard you had some talent.” His reply? “That was last year. This year I decided to eat” says much of Wilder’s view of the direction he saw films heading.

Mac gives us a whole range of emotions and some fine singing with numbers such as the title track, Sunset Boulevard.

Molly Lynch provides the love interest as Betty with a mix of innocence and independence with her duet of Too Much in Love to Care with Mac is a delight, their voices going so well together.

joe and betty

Danny Mac as Joe and Molly Lynch as Betty

There is good support from Dougie Carter as Artie and Carl Sanderson as Cecil B DeMille and a large ensemble for what is a big production – and with a big sound from an excellent 16 strong orchestra under musical director Adrian Kirk; that is huge by touring standards and size does matter when it comes to music with a colour, depth and tonal richness you only get from having enough bodies and instruments in the pit.

So full marks to Lloyd Webber’s Really Useful Group for, like West Side Story, making musical integrity, even at a minimum, part of the licence conditions, and add to that Tom Marshall for a sound design which balances orchestra and voices beautifully with every word clearly heard.

Full marks too to Colin Richmond for a wonderfully flexible set which transformed in seconds from gothic mansion to studio lot, to drug store to soundstage all helped by Ben Cracknell’s excellent lighting which had to follow the same path as well as pin pointing characters for dramatic effect.

Adding to the effect are video projections from Douglas O’Connell in silent movie style on back walls, side walls and front screen which, with moving scenery, sweeping score and changing lights creates a constant attack on the senses

Nikolai Foster, artistic director of The Curve in Leicester, has an impressive CV behind him and productions as good as this will only enhance his reputation. Wilder’s film was a classic, a real Hollywood horror story about a silent movie star abandoned and forgotten in the new world of the talkies and this production stays true to that tragic theme in a magnificent, grown up musical. To 18-11-17

Roger Clarke


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